BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, XINHUA) - The number of new cases from China’s coronavirus epidemic dropped for a third consecutive day on Sunday (Feb 16), as the World Health Organisation chief warned it was “impossible” to predict how the outbreak would develop.
Global concern remains high about the spread of the virus, which first emerged in China’s central Hubei province in December, with the first death outside Asia reported in France this weekend.
The death toll jumped to 1,665 in mainland China on Sunday after 142 more people died from the virus. In hardest-hit Hubei, 139 more people died from the virus, a number that was level with Saturday’s toll.
According to the national health commission, there were 2,009 new cases reported across the country – the third day of declining cases after a spike earlier in the week due to a change in the way cases were counted.
Meanwhile, a total of 9,419 patients had been discharged from hospital after recovery by the end of Saturday. Saturday saw 1,323 people walk out of hospital after recovery, the commission said.
Chinese authorities have placed some 56 million people in Hubei and its capital Wuhan under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.
The virus is believed to have an incubation period of 14 days which would appear to indicate it has been spreading since the Jan 23 lockdown was imposed.
But health commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Sunday the campaign was beginning to show results.
“The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing,” Mi told reporters.
More medical support and preventive measures in Hubei had headed off more critical cases and the proportion of critical cases among confirmed cases was falling, Mi said. Mild cases were also being treated more quickly, preventing them from becoming critical.
The number of new cases in other parts of the country had been dropping for 12 straight days.
World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned, however, that it was “impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take”.
“We ask all governments, companies, and news organisations to work with us to sound the appropriate level of alarm without fanning the flames of hysteria,” he said, speaking at the Munich Security Conference.
“China has bought the world time. We don’t know how much time," he added.
"We're encouraged that outside China, we have not yet seen widespread community transmission."
He said the United Nations health body has asked China for details on how diagnoses were being made.
An international team of WHO experts will arrive in Beijing this weekend for a joint mission with Chinese counterparts.
The scale of the epidemic ballooned last Thursday after the authorities in Hubei changed their criteria for counting cases, retroactively adding thousands of new patients to their tally.
The province added more than 14,000 cases in a single day last week after officials there changed their criteria for counting cases to include people clinically diagnosed through lung imaging, in addition to those with a positive lab test result.
The virus spread last month as millions travelled across the country for the Chinese New Year holiday, which was extended to try and prevent more infections.
People have slowly started to return to work in the past two weeks, though many are doing their jobs from home and schools remain closed.
With the government facing criticism over its handling of the crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for tighter policing to protect social stability.
The government must “increase use of police force and strengthen the visible use of police”, to ensure stability during the crisis, Mr Xi said in a Feb 3 speech published by state media on Saturday.
China’s central bank said on Saturday that to control the outbreak spreading, used banknotes were being disinfected and stored for up to 14 days before they were put back into circulation.
Local authorities around the country have introduced measures to try and stop the virus spreading.
Beijing’s municipal government has enacted a rule requiring all people coming to the capital to quarantine themselves for 14 days, warning that violators would be punished, according to official media.
Outside mainland China, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist in France was the fourth person to die from the new coronavirus, with the other deaths in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.
“We have to get our health system ready to face a possible pandemic propagation of the virus, and therefore the spreading of the virus across France,” said Health Minister Agnes Buzyn.
Dr Robin Thompson, an expert in mathematical epidemiology at Britain’s University of Oxford, said that with nearly 50 cases in Europe, a death was not surprising.
“The most important thing to point out, however, is that there still hasn’t been sustained person-to-person transmission in Europe,” he said.
New cases in Japan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia also suggest no let-up in the outbreak.
The biggest cluster outside China has been on a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, quarantined off Japan’s Yokohama, with 70 more cases reported on Sunday. That took the total out of about 3,700 passengers and crew on board to 355.
The United States said on Saturday that passengers and crew were at high risk of exposure to the virus and it plans to send an aircraft to pick up American passengers.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation,” the US Embassy in Tokyo said in a notice.
The embassy said everyone would be screened before being allowed to board the chartered flights and quarantined for 14 days upon arrival back in the United States.
Hong Kong said it planned to do the same for some 330 of its residents, while Canada said it too would send a plane for its citizens on the vessel.
Another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, finally docked in Cambodia last Thursday after being rejected by ports in several other countries and territories.
The ship was believed to be free of the virus but an 83-year-old American woman from it tested positive upon landing in Malaysia, health authorities there said.